It is late at night, almost into the early hours of morning, but Lilah is restless, unable to even pretend she is attempting sleep. I let her fidget on her bed across from mine, let her flip through the TV channels and page through her book, and I don't tell her to turn off the lights or go to sleep. I am lying down in bed, my eyes closed, but for as long as she is awake, I will not sleep either.
She turns off the TV, then shifts her body towards mine; I don't see her, with my eyes closed, but I feel her eyes on mine, hear the rustle of her sheets. She hesitates, then whispers.
"Mom. Are you awake?"
I take a few seconds to decide whether or not to continue to feign sleep, whether I have the energy to attempt to give her what she wants or needs. But eventually I open my eyes and sit up, turning to face her. "Yes."
For a few moments Lilah just looks at me, her brow puckered, her lower lip caught between her teeth. Then she stands, making her way to my bed, and settles herself into my lap. It's an awkward fit, with her body's long, bony contours not wanting to mold comfortably with mine, but she tries, attempting to burrow close, her head against my chest. I circle an arm around her, lightly, tentatively, and she presses herself even more closely against my chest. I can feel her heartbeat rattling with steady, rapid tempo against mine, and her hands are cold through the material of my shirt. When she speaks her voice is small, uneven, and I hear the tears she is holding back.
"It's my fault, isn't it? We're doing this because of me…it's my fault."
I take a long while to answer her, and when I do my voice is soft, the words carefully chosen. But I don't answer her directly.
"There's no use in assigning blame now, baby. All we can do is keep going, keep doing the best we can with what we have."
She doesn't reply for several moments. I can hear her ragged breathing, the way she's sniffing back tears, and hoping I won't notice. I stroke a hand through her hair, inhaling slowly, and will myself to be what she needed, just for now, just for once, even if I never knew what it was she most required.
"It will be okay," she says finally, her head still lowered, her fingers clutching me tightly, and the words are still shaky, a question more than a claim. "Right? It has to be okay. We'll make it okay, right?"
"We'll get by, Lilah," I tell her evenly, continuing to stroke my fingers through her hair, gently prying apart any tangles they encounter. "We always do and we always will."
She takes this in, tries to believe, and her next question is even softer, her voice even less steady than before as her body tenses against mine.
"Mom…do you still love me?"
My hands still in her hair, and my stomach drops sharply, a bitter taste rising in my mouth as I look down at her, trying to get a glimpse of the face my daughter is trying so hard to conceal. "Of course I still love you, Lilah. I'll always love you. You don't have to worry about that."
"You'll never leave me?" she presses, and I shake my head emphatically, squeezing her bony shoulder and trying to see into her eyes.
"No, Lilah. Never. I'll never leave you."
Even with these words I can still feel her breaths straggling through her thin frame, even now as her fingers are clamping my shirt so tightly I can feel the fabric start to tear. And when she asks her final question, I know her tears have started…I can hear them breaking apart her voice.
"Mom…do you forgive me?"
A simple question, direct and to the point. But for this I have no answer.
I stroke her hair. I kiss the top of her head. I tighten my arms around her, telling her again that I love her.
But I do not answer her question.
We are driving again, no destination in mind expect elsewhere….no expectations, beyond continued struggle and striving for a state of being we can't define and will likely never receive. I try not to look at my daughter, not wanting to have to question one more time where I went wrong, if I am still doing wrong right this minute, if there is anything I could have done to make it all different, to make it all change.
When we drive like this in quiet, or when I watch Lilah's sleeping face in the night, I watch her and I wonder…am I doing the right thing? Did I ever, at any point in her life? Will it ever be possible for her to be happy…will it ever be possible for either of us to be normal, for either of us to be okay?
I try to imagine us in the future. I imagine Lilah grown, married, a beautiful woman with a glowing smile, the world at her feet. But then I think of her dark, rage-filled eyes, or the empty flatness of her young face when I look her way, and I am terrified that now this could never be. That in protecting her, I'm hurting her…that I'm making the worst mistake of my life.
I'm doing my best for Lilah. Everything I do, everywhere I go is for her, in defense of her, to try to give her a decent life. I'm trying to right every wrong, to love her and have that be all we need to make it better.
But it was never enough before, and I worry…what if it isn't enough now? I failed Lilah long ago, and I can't pinpoint when or how, to be able to keep from doing it again. I can't go back and change the past. I can't make whole again what was fractured long ago.
I look at my daughter and fear she is already gone. I look at her and fear that she left even before I noticed, and I'll never get her back. I look at my daughter and I don't just fear for her. I fear for me.